Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God, For he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment. -- Joel 2:12-13
As Lent began, I stood in a cathedral made of glass, immersed in a language unfamiliar. I was at a Vietnamese Ash Wednesday mass at Christ Cathedral in Orange County, California. Any cerebral tendency I have seemed softened by less input in my own language, as my prayer became as breath: natural, flowing, unconscious. I rested into the embrace of music. I felt a homecoming; an arrival to calm and rest, to clarity and refinement of self.
I know the structures and rituals of mass as I know my skin: mystery and wonder, familiar and natural. In the crowded cathedral, I was directed to the balcony where I sat on a wooden pew between strangers with dark hair and kind faces. A new place for me, the language not mine, yet I felt at home.
My motions became prayer, part of the Eucharistic prayer. Without thought I pressed my fingers to my body: face, heart, shoulders (up, down, crisscross.) In the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit. Amen. Twice I walked from the pew to get in line behind other bodies, first to have a minister rub black ash into my brow. “Repent and believe in the Gospel” he must have uttered. “Amen” I said, out of habit.
Later in the service I bowed before I approached him, my palms open in front of me. The minister held up a small white circle made of wheat, appearing as as a wafer. I assume that what he said was Vietnamese for “the Body of Christ,” as he gently placed the Blessed Sacrament into my hands. “Amen.” I said again, moving the host to my mouth, tasting, eating, walking back to the pew. The sign of cross over my body again. The Body of Christ becoming my body, showing me who I truly am, helping me to return to the body, myself. I believe this, yet I can’t fully understand.
With each movement of my body, I render my heart. In every gesture of my faith, I know my belonging. In every surrender to Holy Mystery, I return.
The pilgrimage of Lent is unfolding. The Lenten experience, as we founder in our good intentions and practices, is often a journey through the wilderness of ourselves and God’s glory. Yet we return again and again, adding a little extra prayer and alms into our routines.
It is all trial. This year I start Lent knowing myself better than in years past, anticipating that I will forget and restart in my good intentions, returning again and again to my need for God’s grace and guidance.
It helps to know I am not alone. We are all pilgrims here, and we are all called to change, rebuild, return. These acts of metanoia increase our hungers, our thirst: we are returned to the Body of Christ again and again.
As a Franciscan, I am on a path of continual conversion — regular surrender — no matter what time of year it is. For those of us who follow Jesus in the style of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, much of our charism is centered on this call to return again and again to God. We aim to acknowledge, adore and serve God in a spirit of sincere repentance (Third Order Rule #2), “led by God … conscious that all of us must be continuously and totally converted.” (Third Order Rule #6). In other words, we are all works in progress, and we embrace how constant change, personally and collectively, is a dynamic of our lives.
When my Lenten journey starts to get bumpy, I hope to picture St. Francis of Assisi in front of the cross in a quiet hermitage in the wilderness, fasting and praying alone as he did five times a year. As St. Francis returned to Christ again and again, he grew closer to him, even receiving the wounds of the cross in his body.
And St. Francis of Assisi neglected the needs of his body too, putting spiritual matters before physical, suffering pain, losing his eyesight. Perhaps he is not the best role model for loving the temple of the Spirit that his body was. (1 Corinthians 6:19) Bodies in or out of balance with our spirits: our faith is embodied and the physicality of conversion connects us to our souls, helps us return to self and God.
Each time we tend to our aches, we return to God. When we admit our hungers and our need for rest and renewal, we are honoring our incompleteness, our hopes for transformation. In our bodies, in our breath, we return to God again. We kneel, bow, bend and press our palms together in prayer. We fast and feel hunger. We reach into our purses and find funds and give.
Through every motion, we return to the Body of Christ, connect with our own bodies, ourselves. Through movement and our being, we show our devotion; in every return we are held, we are loved. We are home.